While the northern provinces of Cantabria and Asturias are popular holiday terrain for Spaniards and the French, they remain hardly touched by the mass tourism of the Mediterranean coast, mostly because of the somewhat unreliable weather. But the sea is warm enough for swimming in the summer months, and the sun does shine, if not every day; it’s the warm, moist climate, too, that’s responsible for the forests and rich vegetation that give the region its name, Costa Verde, or the Green Coast. The provinces also boast old and elegant seaside towns, and a dramatic landscape that features tiny, isolated coves along the coast and, inland, the fabulous Picos de Europa, with peaks, sheer gorges and some of Europe’s most spectacular montane wildlife.
Cantabria, centred on the city of Santander and formerly part of Old Castile, was long a conservative bastion amid the separatist leanings of its coastal neighbours. Santander itself, the modern capital, is an elegant if highly conventional resort, linked by ferry to Plymouth and Portsmouth in Britain. Either side lie attractive, lower-key resorts, crowded and expensive in August especially, but quieter during the rest of the year. The best are Castro Urdiales, to the east, and Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera to the west. Perhaps the pick of the province’s towns, though, is the beautiful Santillana del Mar, overloaded with honey-coloured mansions and, at times, with tourists, too. Inland lies a series of prehistoric caves: the most famous, Altamira, is no longer open to the public but is explained by a great museum, while another can be seen at Puente Viesgo, near Santander.
To the west lie the towering cliffs and rugged coves of Asturias, a land with its own idiosyncratic traditions, which include status as a principality (the heir to the Spanish throne is known as the Príncipe de Asturias), and a distinctive culture that incorporates bagpipes and cider (sidra – served from above head-height to add fizz). Asturias has a base of heavy industry, especially mining and steelworks – and a long-time radical and maverick workforce – but for the most part, the coastline is a delight, with wide, rolling meadows leading down to the sea. Tourism here is largely local, with a succession of old-fashioned and very enjoyable seaside towns such as Ribadesella, Llanes and Cudillero. Asturias also holds three sizeable cities: Oviedo, a delightful regional capital with a recently restored old centre; Avilés, at its best during the wild Carnaval celebrations; and nearby Gijón, which enjoys a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene as well as good beaches.
Inland, everything is dominated by the Picos de Europa, which in fact take in parts of León, as well as Cantabria and Asturias, though for simplicity the whole national park is covered in this chapter. A quiet pleasure on the peripheries of the mountains, as in Cantabria, is the wealth of Romanesque, and even rare pre-Romanesque, churches found in odd corners of the hills. These reflect the history of the old Asturian kingdom – the embryonic kingdom of Christian Spain – which had its first stronghold in the mountain fortress of Covadonga, and spread slowly south with the Reconquest.Read More
The FEVE railway
The FEVE railway
Communications in Cantabria and Asturias are generally slow, with the one main road following the coast through the foothills to the north of the Picos de Europa. If you’re not in a hurry, you may want to make use of the narrow-gauge FEVE rail line (feve.es), which is unmarked on many maps and independent of the main RENFE system; note that rail passes are not valid on this service. The FEVE line can be broadly split into three routes: Bilbao in the Basque Country to Santander; Santander to Oviedo (where local services serve the triangle of Gijón, Avilés and Oviedo); and Oviedo to Ferrol in Galicia. The route is, on the whole, breathtakingly beautiful, skirting beaches, crossing rías and snaking through a succession of limestone gorges, but you will need several days to see it in its entirety. An expensive “train hotel” runs at night, but with the scenery the main attraction of the route, it’s not the most rational way to get around.
22: Saint’s day fiesta at San Vicente de la Barquera.
Start of Lent: Carnaval Week-long festivities in Avilés, Gijón, Oviedo, Mieres, Santoña – fireworks, fancy dress and live music.
Good Friday Re-enactment of the Passion at Castro Urdiales.
Easter Sunday and Monday: Bollo Cake festival at Avilés.
First weekend after Easter: La Folia Torch-lit procession at San Vicente de la Barquera; a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through town on a fishing boat.
29: La Amuravela Cudillero enacts an ironic review of the year – and then proceeds to obliterate memories.
Throughout July Weekly fiestas in Llanes, with Asturian dancers balancing pine trees on their shoulders and swerving through the streets. Also, tightrope walking and live bands down at the harbour.
First Friday: Coso Blanco Nocturnal parade at Castro Urdiales.
Mid-July: Festival de Folk Cultural fiesta at San Vicente de la Barquera.
15: Traditional festival at Comillas, with greased-pole climbs, goose chases and other such events.
25: Festival of St James Cangas de Onis.
Throughout August: Festival Internacional Music and cultural festival at Santander. This being one of the wealthiest cities of the north, you can usually depend on the festival featuring some prestigious acts.
First or second weekend: Descenso Internacional del Sella Mass canoe races from Arriondas to Ribadesella down the Río Sella, with fairs and festivities in both towns.
First Sunday: Asturias Day Celebrated above all at Gijón.
12: Fiesta at Llanes.
15: El Rosario The fishermen’s fiesta at Luarca, when the Virgin is taken to the sea.
Last Friday: Battle of the Flowers At Laredo.
Last week: San Timoteo Fairly riotous festivities at Luarca: best on the final weekend of the month, with fireworks over the sea, people being thrown into the river and a Sunday romería.
7–9: Running of the bulls at Ampuero (Santander).
19: Americas Day In Asturias, celebrating the thousands of local emigrants in Latin America; at Oviedo, there are floats, bands and groups representing every Latin American country. The exact date for this can vary.
21: Fiesta de San Mateo At Oviedo, usually a continuation of the above festival.
Last Sunday: Campoo Day Held at Reinosa, and featuring a parade in traditional dress.
29: Romería de San Miguel At Puente Viesgo.
First or second weekend: Orujo Local-liquor festival in Potes.
30: San Andrés Saint’s day fiesta, celebrated with a small regatta at Castro Urdiales. The tradition is to sample sea bream and snails.
Asturian food and drink
Asturian food and drink
Asturian food is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s certainly not for vegetarians. The signature dish is fabada, a dense haricot-bean stew floating with pungent chunks of meat: black pudding, chorizo and ham. It’s served in a round terracotta dish, and you mop up the juice with the ubiquitous hunk of solid bread. Seafood is another feature, from sea urchins – particularly popular in Gijón – to sea bream and squid. The region produces a huge variety of handmade cheeses, most notably the veined and slightly spicy cabrales, which, in its purest form, is made with cow-, sheep- and goat-milk combined. Another variety is a small cone-shaped cheese, known as afuega’l pitu, which sometimes has a wrinkled exterior owing to its having been hung in cloth.
One sight you won’t miss is waiters and punters pouring sidra (cider) – which you can only order by the bottle – from above their heads into wide-rimmed glasses. The idea is that you knock back the frothing brew in one go. Since it’s a point of honour for the waiters to stare straight ahead rather than look at the glasses, and any residue that you don’t drink within a minute or two is summarily discarded on the floor, it’s hardly surprising the region seems to reek of stale cider.